The most important lesson I learned from Ann Mah’s Mastering the Art of French Eating? Never drink water with fondue, only kirsch or Fendant wine, as anything else and “the cheese will form a giant ball in your stomach.” I’ve made fondue multiple times and always had water…très grave at least according to the French. They’re also apparently obsessed with digestion, an activity I think lost on many an American.
But back to Mah’s food/travel narrative. While I liked Mastering the Art of French Eating, I didn’t love it which somewhat disappointed me because a book about France and French food, well, I wanted to adore it.
Mah is an Asian-American writer whose diplomat husband’s job takes them to Paris, France where they are to be stationed for three years. It is a dream for both Mah and her husband but especially Mah as she had always dreamt of living in Paris (her husband had been lucky to have lived there as a student). However, shortly after arriving in Paris Mah’s husband’s posting assignment changes to what at the time was probably one of the most dangerous posts for an American diplomat, post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. This assignment was not “family friendly” so for the year that her husband is stationed in Iraq, Mah stays behind in Paris. Mah is happy that her Paris plans are not disrupted and yet incredibly sad that she’s not able to share it with the one person she loves the most. She enters into a period of moderate depression and loneliness, natural as she is in a foreign country where she does not speak the language (she improves significantly during her first year living there) and where as a Chinese American, her physical features make her the topic of scrutiny, for many French people she encounters are incredulous that she is indeed an American.
But just as with a certain Julia Child more than half a century before, it is food that gets her through her year of loneliness, that gives her a sense of purpose in life. And so the book is broken down into chapters, with each one devoted to a famous dish from a French region/city. Interspersed with the history of the dish and Mah’s personal “experience” with it, the book also has information on what it’s like to be an American in Paris, as in one who lives there, not just a tourist who is there for a week and is awestruck by the Eiffel Tower and the glittering waters of the Seine at night. And of course there are loads of interesting tidbits on the French people…which for an American are always comical and enjoyable.
While I knew most of the dishes that were featured (andouillette, a coarse-grained sausage made with pork, intestines or chitterlings, pepper, wine, onions, and seasonings was the one that I did not know), my favorite chapters were probably the ones on Brittany/Crepes; Toulouse, Castelnaudary, Carcassonne/Cassoulet, and Alsace/Choucroute. What I found most interesting was the history of these dishes, since how often do people know the origins of a famous food they are eating? A common theme featured a dish that had been prepared for centuries, many of the ingredients hand made as well, but in the era of modernity where “time is money,” these dishes are quickly being forgotten by today’s generations and only saved and/or resurrected by concerned residents.
The end of each chapter features a recipe for the dish which I think is always a great thing because they are almost all adapted (i.e. more simplified versions than anything found in Mastering the Art of French Cooking).
The reason why I didn’t love it? The everyday Paris parts were interesting. But the parts on the particular chapter’s food? They were on the boring side I hate to admit. Not that learning about the history of a food isn’t worthwhile, it just doesn’t translate into a fast read. Also, I’m sure it was hard considering Mah had to worry about the safety of her husband every day he was in Iraq, but there wasn’t a lot of humor in it, so that also contributed to its dryness.
I definitely enjoy anything book-wise related to Paris and France; however a similar book I preferred a lot more was Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard (you can read my review on that by clicking here).